Monday, May 15, 2017

The marvel of feeling normal

Beat's knee injury didn't improve in time to run the Quadrock trail race, so I woke up at 4:45 a.m. and headed north alone. Saturday morning was intensely beautiful, with a pomegranate-seed sunrise sprinkled across the periwinkle sky. Streets were eerily empty and farm fields shimmered with green and gold glitter. The hillsides were saturated with this exuberant light. 

"This race could be a disaster and getting up early for this drive would still be worth it," I thought. "Still, I hope it's not a disaster."

I used to run trail races on the regular in California, but I hadn't put a foot across a starting line since January 2016. At the time, these 50-kilometer trail races were my fitness gauge to see whether I'd recovered enough from the Tour Divide Plague to reliably breathe my way through the Iditarod. Seventeen months later, I was no longer curious about whether dizziness and desperation would hit. I'd mostly accepted this as my default for any remotely hard effort; the curiosity lied in more distant memories of "normal." 

The sun was already high and bright, the temperature topping 70 degrees as I rounded Horsetooth Reservoir at 7 a.m. Pre-race chatter centered on the hot, hot day in front of us. The forecast was for mid- to high-80s — warmer than most northern Coloradoans had seen yet this season. My freshest memories of spring trail races were all scorchers in California — Quicksilver 50-miler, Ohlone 50K — and running beautiful but shadeless singletrack beneath an unforgiving sun. My strategy for scorchers is to freeze a two-liter bladder full of water to a solid block of ice, which I gladly carry because it can propel me through up to three hours of intense sweating, if I sip.

The impressively fit pack of 250 runners shot off the starting line, while I loped at 10-minute-miles amid the sparsely populated rear. Geez these Coloradoans don't mess around. I had no idea what might happen, and I didn't want to burn all of my matches before we even hit the first steep and seemingly endless climb. Quadrock has three such climbs, countless punchy rollers, and so many rocks that I was lusting for my trekking poles before the first mile of singletrack was done. My proprioception becomes scrambled on chunky terrain, causing disorientation and increasingly more frequent, eventually injurious mistakes. I've become too reliant on "running crutches" to manage my balance and stability, but mechanical aids were not allowed in this race.

 By mile 10, the trekking poles were mostly forgotten as I settled into a comfortable rhythm. My heart was beating strong at 160, 165 even 170 beats per minute — a rate that long ago felt comfortable, but punched far into gasping territory after I became sick. I stopped at the aid station manned by my hometown running group, the Boulder Banditos, who were cheerfully attending to a crowd of salt-streaked runners.

"My watch says it's 93 degrees," one guy complained.

"It's probably the direct sunlight," I replied. It was easily in the mid-80s, though. My friend Wendy filled up my neck bandana with chunks of ice.

"That feels amazing," I thanked her, and started at a loping 10-minute-mile up the second endless climb. My heart and head told me I could run fast, but my quad muscles were already quivering. A winter full of dizziness and desperation didn't leave any top-end fitness to work with. But a more comfortable pace? I could do this all day.

There was a long, rocky traverse that caused a few stumbles, along with an unwelcome bout of frustration.

"Feet up, drink water," I reminded myself constantly. My quad muscles frequently spasmed. "Quadrock is a good name for this race," I thought. I watched other runners double over beside the trail with cramps and vomiting, or both. I offered help and sympathy, neither of which meant much. I thrashed my head because "Baby One More Time" was running a deafening loop through my mind, and it WOULD NOT LEAVE. This wasn't even the Britney Spears version; it was sung in an unfamiliar male voice, a high falsetto. It seemed highly unlikely this version even existed, but there it was. Finally I gave in, and matched my steps to the rhythm, "Feet up, drink water, oh baby baby, the reason I breathe is you."

The miles unravelled, and I felt better as I went. The final aid station had bakery peanut butter cookies, and I stood under the thin canopy shade and savored one while watching another runner double over nearby. A volunteer gave me ice for my now-empty bladder, and I was free. Nothing could stop me. There was a third endless climb to mile 20, stumbling along a narrow sideslope amid a crowd. At the top, the trail opened up beneath a cooling canopy of pine. My heart continued to beat strong and there wasn't a hint of desperation in my steady breaths. I couldn't believe how well this race was going, and it was almost over. Should I pound the final descent? Na, don't want to bloody my face now. Should I have run harder? Na — it's so much more fun to travel 25 miles over rugged terrain in an oppressive heat, and feel as revved up as a mullet at a Mötley Crüe reunion.

I strode into the 25-mile finish after six hours and 25 minutes, which is pretty slow even for me (in the good old days of effortless trail running, my 50K finishes were usually faster than this) ... but I wasn't last. I was actually in the top half of my group. 52 out of 117 women. Everything really is more difficult here in Colorado; it's not just me and my running crutches.

To keep the feeling alive, or perhaps prove to myself that I can return to a time where moderately difficult efforts are no big deal, I joined Beat for a tough ride on Sunday. Since he's not running, he's been putting in solid training miles on his mountain bike. We rode a 25-mile loop with 4,100 feet of climbing. My body was definitely more worn after Saturday. My heart was beating like the 140s were a better place to be, but it was fun to feel so comfortable amid so much climbing, again.

For Monday morning, my friend Cheryl invited me to check out Trail Ridge Road, the main road through Rocky Mountain National Park. It was closed until recently. We weren't sure of the conditions or how much snow, mud and gravel we'd encounter, so we brought our mountain bikes. (Plus, Cheryl is a kindred spirit who would rather just ride her comfy mountain bike all of the time, no matter how much slower it may be on pavement.)

The road was in great shape, cleared to the pass and beyond. We encountered impressive snow berms along the way. I'm glad there was no need to posthole through eight feet of slush.

The weather was strikingly different from Saturday, with temperatures in the low 40s and fierce cross-winds whipping along the tundra. I was back in a fleece hat and mittens, and I couldn't have been happier.

The high point of the road soars to 12,183 feet. Presumably there is not as much air up here, but I was breathing easy and quite stoked about that.

The Lava Cliffs.

Views, views, views.

Hello, Longs Peak. I'm sorry I haven't climbed you yet. I'll get around to it this summer. Really, I will.

This ride was 40 miles with more than 5,000 feet of climbing, but it was one of those outings where you're distracted by happy thoughts most of the time, and don't really notice any of the effort. And the best part — no Britney Spears earworms.

I still don't feel "normal" every day, and still can't say when that will happen, if ever. But these normal days, right now, are a gift that I never truly appreciated until they were gone. From now on, I will be grateful for every one.

Monday, May 08, 2017

From snow to 85 to severe thunderstorms

 It's spring in Colorado, and the weather is all over the place. "If you don't like the weather, wait 15 minutes" is an observation that's been flogged to death again and again, but the schizophrenic skies are still a source of entertainment. On May 3 we had a lovely snowstorm, illuminated by flecks of sunlight. I stood on the porch in my bare feet for at least ten minutes, mesmerized by the dance of sparkling snowflakes.

These poor daffodils. They were completely buried by 14" of snow just four days prior. They emerged on Monday only to be pummeled again on Wednesday. I'd feel guilty for not protecting them from the storms, but they seem to bounce back just fine.

 May greenery and fresh snow — one of my favorite color combinations.

 By Saturday — three days later — temperatures spiked well into the 80s. Beat and I lathered up in sunscreen and headed out for a mountain bike ride. We stopped to admire the elk grazing in the elk pastures ... except these aren't domesticated animals.

 During the five-hour ride, we spent upwards of two and a half hours stumbling along ten or so miles of trails in the Blue Dot trail system. Beat was actually the one coaxing me away from the bail-outs as we both mused about how great these trails would be for running. There's certainly some beautiful segments for cycling, too — ribbon singletrack, tight switchbacks, roller-coaster descents. But like most Boulder trails, the beautiful segments are frequently interrupted by crumbling chunder gullies, root steps, unrideable rock outcroppings, and occasional severe erosion. There's little flow for a cyclist like me, who really prefers flow to being not-so-gently flogged by choppy terrain. I've joked with Beat that I'd happily turn in my mountain biker card if it meant I could ride ribbon singletrack and fire roads all of the time. However, I live in Boulder, so I'll likely continue to chip away at my flaccid technical skills.

 At least Blue Dot has hike-a-bikes with views. And the technical puzzles do distract from the heat. I'll have to remember this come July.

On Sunday we hoped to complete a long run, but lounged around for far too long and set out just as dark clouds were gathering overhead. It's getting to be that time of year where afternoons are not the best time to play, but it always takes a few hard lessons to adjust winter habits. As we climbed toward Bear Peak, an opaque gray wall obscured everything to the south. The cloud was approaching us at alarming speed.

"We're going to get pummeled," I said to Beat. Not really taking my own definition of pummeled seriously, we continued to climb. Within five minutes, sharp hail was raining down on us. We scrambled to cover up with our meager spring layers — I had a fleece beanie, but a woefully thin three-ounce wind jacket. Beat had a better jacket and gloves, but no hat. We still didn't think it was so bad, so we continued to climb into the deluge. When switchbacks turned into the wind, I couldn't even breathe through the gales. A chill rapidly deteriorated into vigorous shivering. My core was very cold, and my calves hurt from the hail stings. Then Beat saw lightning. We abandoned the "long run" plan and made a hasty retreat.

More severe thunderstorms were in the forecast today, so I rallied out the door before 9 a.m., hoping to complete one last medium-length run before Quadrock on Saturday. Quadrock is a trail race in Fort Collins that I signed up for months ago, back when I still thought I'd be riding the Idiatrod, so I put my name down for the "half" (25 miles.) After the thyroid diagnosis I figured there would be no racing this spring, but I've been feeling so good lately — so much better than I ever felt during the winter. My lab numbers are approaching normal, so the risks are diminished. And it's only 25 miles. Some of my weekend fun runs have been nearly that long. Why not?

The thing is, I am really nervous about the prospect of racing. My last race (January's Fat Pursuit) was a grueling failure. I haven't even started a foot race since January 2016. Quadrock has reasonably tight cutoffs, and they don't allow trekking poles (how will I stay upright without my running crutches? I don't even know anymore.) And now Beat has a knee injury that will likely prevent him from racing the 50-mile version of Quadrock. I'll be all alone out there! (Well, just me and the other 264 entrants in the 25-miler.) Anyway, I am weirdly wound up about Quadrock. I just want to finish the race, and not face-plant ... at least not in a way that will prevent me from finishing. And if I can't finish, ugh. I don't even want to think about it.

But I do want to start. The route I chose today had 4,200 feet of climbing and an equal amount of descending in a measly 11 miles. It was quite technical for "running," and I mainly wanted one more good practice on steep descents. The final descent proved that I actually have put in some good training over the past five weeks. My first runs back from Alaska were punctuated by plenty of soreness, but today my legs felt fresh as I picked up the pace for the final mile home. Just as I walked in the door, rain started to pelt against the windows. I'd escaped the storms entirely. One hundred percent success. 
Friday, May 05, 2017

In spite of the scars

Like many people, I tend to carry scars from my life's more intense experiences, both good and bad. The physical scars accumulate on my arms and legs — pink, sensitive spots that hurt every time I whack them, and take longer and longer to heal every time another crash opens them anew (my poor right elbow is such a mess.)

The emotional scars are similar; I can trace an my ongoing fear of water all the way back to visceral memories of a misguided wander into "Amazing Mumford's Water Maze" at Sesame Place in Texas, at the age of 3. My latest addition to the irrational fear basket is snow slides. Last weekend, when Beat and I went hiking through the rapidly melting snow around Walker Ranch, I became startled by snow sloughing of the rocks and had a real panic reaction — heart racing, nervous shivering, eyes darting around. It's annoying enough that I can't deal with putting my face under water or riding in small boats; now I'm afraid of the most benign instances of falling snow?

Then there are the scars that aren't really fears, just unpleasant associations. Near the top of this list are memories of the 2015 Tour Divide. Whether the association is rational or not, on an emotional level, I blame my health issues on this specific experience. The short of it is that I came down with bronchitis during the race, and pushed through it anyway for two weeks as I became increasingly more ill. After that, it was as though a switch flipped. My body was different. Even before I understood that I have an autoimmune disorder — which are thought to be sometimes triggered by assaults on the immune system — I felt the Tour Divide was a sharp line between the changes in my health. Of course many things about my lifestyle and genetics could have made the difference, and it isn't rational to pin everything that's happened since on a single event. Regardless, the anger is here to stay.

Now I imagine grinding along those mountain roads, and viscerally feel as though I'm choking on dust, and my head weighs a thousand pounds, and I stare blankly toward beautiful horizons, only see a bleak kind of vacuousness. I recently realized that these poor associations with the Tour Divide have made me less inclined toward what is objectively one of my favorite things in the world — riding my bicycle through scenic landscapes.

I thought about this strange association as I suited up to go for a ride on Thursday, my first in nearly two weeks. Earlier in the week, my excuse for bike avoidance was my left knee, which was still stiff from the previous week's crash. It had taken about this long to achieve full range of motion without pain. Of course I ran 16 miles through mud and slush and a lot of downhill on Monday, and my knee was fine then. But still I didn't want to ride my bike. Weird.

However, I made a commitment to meet Beat after work, and mapped out an intriguing new route on forest roads above Nederland. The forest roads were still too covered in snow to do much more than stumble along at 0.5 mph as my shins were cut by icy slush (and I only bothered to do this for ten minutes, mainly out of desire to cool my feet and sunburned legs.) For the rest of the ride, I felt strong. Really strong. I mashed the pedals up Caribou Road with sweat pouring down my back and lungs full of fire. I'm still afraid to push truly hard — bad associations with asthma attacks that may take a while to diminish yet. But wow, I felt incredible.

Perhaps I don't have to be scarred for life by the 2015 Tour Divide. Perhaps I can even go back to that route someday, and restore the wonderful experiences of 2009. Perhaps Beat's insistence that it's possible to manage Grave's Disease and "make Jill great again" holds some weight.

Or maybe it was just a good ride amid the ongoing, body-and-mind-thrashing rollercoaster that is life. I'll take it. It reminded me of the lyrics from "Home" by Field Report:

"The body remembers what your mind forgets. 
Archives every heartbreak and cigarette. 
And these reset bones might not hold.
Yeah, but they might yet."